Building a peat wall

I realise this blog has a lot of photographs of mud, and this post will continue that jolly theme….

In day to day life, peat is a fairly useless substance, and there’s an awful lot of it in Scotland. In a nearby bog, it reaches a depth of four metres. Hence I’m inclined to regard the debate about whether it should be used in gardens with bemusement. Anyway, I have my own supply, which lies about two feet underneath this propitious piece of landscape: About a century ago, this was a pond. Then someone attempted to drain it and plant trees, – without much success on either front, as you can see. But one day, as I was trying to revive the drainage ditches in a futile fashion, I found that the bed of the old pond, underneath a century’s worth of mud,  consisted of about two feet of peat. Not nice friable heather peat, but extremely soggy and unpleasant rush/moss peat. But good enough for a peat wall.

Peat walls are fun, because, unlike brick walls, you can grow things in them, such as gentians, heathers, and maybe primulas. Also, over time, they get a coating of moss, which makes them look suitably rustic. But they do decay a bit, and need renewal. So, down at the bottom of a very wet trench, I am cutting out blocks:The blocks have to be barrowed:And then left to drain, until they are about the consistency of an undercooked sponge cake.Meanwhile, I cut a space for the replacement wall. Because it is on a slope, I’ve put down a piece of slate to stop the blocks sliding downhill.Cutting the blocks to shape is just like cutting cake. I use a buttercup knife, but a cake knife would do. Once they are in position, gaps are plugged with the soggy off-cuts:Here’s the finished repair. As you can see, I have pushed some gentian offshoots into the cracks between the blocks, so that with luck they will flower next year.If you fancy a peat wall, but don’t have your own bog, it’s easy enough to buy in blocks (at  a price). Here’s one central Scotland supplier:  There are others.


21 thoughts on “Building a peat wall

  1. And you thought my space post was odd– here you are a grownup person playing in the mud. Goodness. I will overlook that and go right to my questions. Is that a little board road you made for the wheelbarrow? Is that hooked tool a buttercup knife? (Made to whack buttercups?) Could you build a freestanding wall with the peat blocks, or a house? Really I love that you can grow plants in them. If you let them dry out will they crumble into something good for adding to soil like compost?

    • Good day, Linnie. I’m so glad you manage to avoid mud. What an amenable garden you must have. Indeed, the planks are the only way of getting the barrow through the swamp. I once tried doing without, but the wheelbarrow sank without trace (well, nearly). The buttercup knife is a vital ingredient in my life. You don’t do anything as undignified as ‘whack’ with it, just hook it round the weed and amputate all the roots with a quick pull. It works on celandine too, so you might like to order one….?

      • For the record, I thought the wheelbarrow road was quite clever Kininvie. But I have issues with the buttercup knife. In my experience you must dig out roots (most especially in the case of celandine–is that the “buttercup” in the name?) or the weeds
        immediately return, so I use a shovel…into the dirt.

        • I have realised that the reason for your squeamishness about mud must lie in that strange American habit of referring to perfectly good garden soil as ‘dirt’. Is it a throwback to a puritan obsession with cleanliness?

          • Dear Kininvie
            I am a lot of things but puritan is not one of them.
            I’ll have to guess that dirt is a negative to you but really how about if you define it for me? Here dirt is soil–the words are pretty much interchangeable. (We have additional uses for the word but I think our languages share those other uses.) Personally I love to dig (you know I move plants a lot) and you should see the state of my garden boots. I don’t end up with useful peat blocks when digging in mud of course I just end up muddy. So I tend to wait until the earth dries a little if possible. Makes better dirt.

            • Dear Linnie,
              Well yes, dirt is largely – in fact totally – negative. Online etymology tell me it is from Old Norse, and certainly negative in 1300ad and subsequently. Interesting thing is when did US usage change. Can’t find an answer to this? Maybe you can? Maybe it was the puritans after all? Or maybe just generations of people like Tillie, saying ‘don’t play in the mud – it’s dirty’???

              • I looked up “dirt” in old American-published dictionaries on my bookshelf. In a small one from 1853 the definition reads “earth; filfth; foul matter” and in a much larger dictionary dated 1916 the first definition then is excrement and filth but the second definition (marked “colloquial”) is said to mean loose earth or soil. So sometime between 1916 and now that second definition overtook the first here at least in regard to gardens. (I think by 1916 the early Puritans were pretty dead except for a few who remain still in politics and likely don’t garden much.)

      • Oh boy – anything that might do in the celandines would be worth a try. My Wiltshire clay grows more celandines than you’d believe possible. I spend a month each spring on them. Does it do for dandelions too? My husband’s favourite past-time (almost) is quartering the grass (too mossy and weedy to be called a lawn) with an old kitchen knife hacking at dandelions, and I’m sure he’d love a special implement for the job…….

        • NOTHING does in celandines, because those little tuberous roots survive all attempts to weed. But the buttercup hook is brilliant for dandelions. Just push it behind the root and pull…

  2. I love peat walls… I have my own version – though built in turf rather than actual peat – as a retaining wall to raise my hedge towards the road, and it was so much fun building. Like playing with legos!

      • I planted the hedge with forsythia, lilacs and various native trees and bushes in a great mix, so they will easily continue growing with a bit of grass at their feet.

        Mind you, I wouldn’t have used it for a flowerbed like yours!

  3. Some good, hard graft Mr K. And, like linniew, I was much taken with your plank barrow-path. I would have just heaved and sweated and swore as I barrowed through and over tussocks and holes and tree roots. Have you ever used peat for fuel? I saw neatly stacked piles of it on Harris many years ago but have always thought that it can’t be much of a fuel. Smouldering, smoky and without much heat I imagine? Dave

  4. I had no idea that it was even possible to make a wall from peat. Wall and growing media at the same time. Handy. Can the wall be freestanding?

    I remember my uncle trying peat as a fuel some time during my childhood and it STANK. If you’ve ever been to Jorvik and experienced the way they recreate the stench of a viking town, it was just like that. Or at least my childhood nasal memory suggested so. But then rotting carpets = blue cheese according to my childhood nasal memory so I may well be wrong…

    • I’m shocked you don’t like the smell of burning peat. Maybe your uncle just diidn’t use the right stuff? I’ve never seen a free-standing peat wall. I suspect it would dry out and quickly crumble away. Used as a retaining wall, the moisture in the soil behind keeps it damp, and it lasts several years

  5. I use similar pathways to move heavy things when my clay is soaked with rain, the only difference is that you are clever, while I am rather silly because I could just wait for the soil to drain and dry… as for playing with mud… I quote Linnie 100%!

    • Dear Alberto, you can’t make a bog garden without playing with mud. It goes with the territory. Just because you live in a nice country with dryness and warmth and lemon trees and stuff does not give you the right to be so ‘climatist’ when it comes to those of us who don’t…..

    • Hello Bridget,
      That’s intriguing, because I would have expected peat walls to be a staple of Irish gardens. They are used extensively in some well-known Scottish gardens – e.g. Branklyn.

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